For local dramatist Shaun Nethercott, the plot of a play — whether involving personal triumph or lost love — isn't necessarily what live theater is all about. She's less interested in what happens, per se, than the mechanics of how a play works or the real-life lessons audiences come away with.
As co-founder and executive director of Matrix Theatre Company in Mexicantown, Nethercott's work is informed by seven years of studying the late modernist Irish playwright and poet Samuel Beckett. Sitting in her office above the theater, she's serene and quick with a warm smile, yet she speaks about the playwright and theater in general with enthusiasm and intensity.
Although many people, if they know of Beckett at all, think of him as the author of stark works where nothing much seems to happen, Nethercott sees so much more.
"Beckett's plays are some of the most compassionate plays I've seen because they are so human," she says. Likewise, the Nobel Prize committee, in 1969, honored his dramatic writing, which "in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation."
A native of Wyoming, Nethercott was raised in Rock Springs, where she spent her early years reading, writing and getting involved in every creative endeavor a small mining town could offer. She discovered Beckett while doing undergraduate work in 1978 at the University of Wyoming.
"We had to read Waiting for Godot and Endgame. At the time, I was just getting into nontraditional theatre." She had directed Edward Albee's The Sandbox, and took an interest in a wide range of playwrights, including Tennessee Williams and Eugène Ionesco. But it was Beckett who really captured her imagination.
"He devised plays that would have certain rhythms, certain sounds and certain shapes. To me, he was almost like a performance artist."
In 1982, she spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow at the Beckett archives in Reading, England, where she analyzed and mapped various incarnations of Beckett plays written between 1965 and 1982.
"I went through and wrote down every single change he made," she says. "I'd start with the first handwritten manuscript, and I would see where it was changed ... then I'd go through each iteration, marking down each change."
Her goal was to understand Beckett's creative process, and to get to know the structure of his works as opposed to simply uncovering their meanings. She was able to literally see how he honed his plays almost as if she had him right there, showing her how to write.
Although Nethercott found Beckett's writing beautiful and inspiring enough to have studied, directed or at least read all of his plays, her fellowship was a challenge. Beckett sometimes had 15 or more versions of one play. But she says the time she spent going through each line of select works from his archives not only gave her material for her dissertation, it set in motion a whole new way of thinking about and writing drama.
In 1985, she completed a dissertation titled "Play as a System: The Play of Samuel Beckett" for her Ph.D. in dramaturgy at the University of Utah. With his idea of the play not being about a subject but about "the thing itself" always in her mind, Nethercott began to see theater as something bigger than a script and a story line.
"Plays are a subset within the theater field," she says. "The theater field includes everything from a Red Wings game to a wedding to a parade to a monster truck rally. ... They're all forms of theater. In each case you're manipulating the actor-audience relationship."
In Beckett's play called Play, for instance, three talking heads appear in urns, and they only speak their lines when they are illuminated by stage lights.
"That play is a good example of just being," she says. "The jarring feeling of uncertainty that the audience experiences is what it's all about."
She also considers Beckett a masterful technician. "He would count the seconds for how long pauses between words should be, just like a musician distinguishes between an eighth note or a sixteenth note."
While interested in the structure of his plays, the humanity she sees also inspires her. Nethercott points to his ability to deal with the difficulties of existence with so much feeling and precision. She cites his 1969 short stage work, Breath, as an example. One of his later, most minimalist works, the play only lasts for about 25 seconds and consists of a birth-cry, an inhale, an exhale and then another birth-cry. No characters stand on stage, but Beckett gave instructions that the floor be littered with trash. The lighting brightens and dims along with the sounds of the crying and breathing.
What brought Nethercott and her husband, Wesley, to Detroit in the late 1980s after her years of immersion in Beckett was the city's history and sense of social consciousness.
"There are people who are chosen to have a voice," she says. "And there are lots of people who are un-chosen. Detroit is a place where there are lots of people who are un-chosen."
The Matrix opened in 1991, about a mile from the home in Mexicantown where she lives with Wesley, who co-founded the theater with her. About 80 plays have run there — the very first being, of course, Waiting for Godot. But the theater is committed to producing mostly original works. She and her husband have collaborated on 45 of those.
Nethercott doesn't only write and produce plays; she fosters creativity through the dramatic arts as a teacher. Each year, dozens of people of all ages attend classes, summer camps and workshops. She's also active in community programs that bring the arts to people from all walks of life. Because of such outreach programs, she was the recipient of the Theresa Maxis Social Justice Award at Marygrove College last year.
The next plays on the Matrix schedule are Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which will open in fall of 2008, and Caution: This is How It's Caught, a play written by a group of teens about the AIDS epidemic among young people in Detroit.
But the spirit of Beckett is alive and well at Matrix in an upcoming original play called Jambalaya. The experimental piece will open later in the year. Nethercott designed Jambalaya to give real people a voice. She will have a group of people from different cultures and backgrounds, including the physically handicapped and mentally ill, telling stories from their lives through narratives and creative movement. The audience members will also have a chance to take part in the storytelling. For her, the play reflects Beckett's idea of using strategies and experiences rather than representations.
"Allowing a certain amount of chance or asking the audience to be engaged is also a careful artistic process," Nethercott says. "It's not random. It's more like using game theory. There are boundaries, but they are permeable."
Norene Cashen is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
For more information about Matrix Theatre Company's schedule, workshops, summer camps and outreach programs, visit matrixtheatre.org.